“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

The verse above is one which is often quoted. It can be found on bookmarks, as a framed picture, on the front of journals and on mugs. It was even on the front page of my last church’s website. It’s a lovely verse and it means a lot to many people because it is certainly good to know that God has a plan for us, a good plan. The danger of this verse is that we think that all we need to do is work out what God’s plan is before we can take action. We spend months and years not living for today but searching for that illusive tomorrow.

To counter this falsehood, it helps to understand the context into which God, through Jeremiah, was speaking when these words were given. Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem in the late 7th and early 6th century BCE, a city under siege from the mighty Babylonian Empire. From 598-597 BCE some of the inhabitants were already being carried off against their will, to live in Babylon, although Jerusalem would not fall for another ten years. Another prophet, Hananiah, had been telling the people what they wanted to hear. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You will all be home within two years” (see Jeremiah 28:2-3). Hananiah’s words echo through the centuries when we hear things like: “It will all be sorted by Christmas.”

The first candle is lit on the Advent wreath.

In contrast, Jeremiah was incredibly honest with the exiles. In his letter, he told them the truth. His message was not for individuals but for the people as a whole. The good news was that their lives would continue. They were to build homes, plant gardens, get married, have children, live for the benefit of the city they now inhabited. It wasn’t ‘home’, but it would become their home. Babylon would be their ‘new normal.’ If they were worried about how they would worship God, far from the Temple, then they should know that they could worship God anywhere. The bad news was that they were going to be in Babylon for a very long time. It would be 70 years before they would return. This was a hard truth for them to hear, most of the adult exiles would be unlikely to return at all, unless they lived to a great age.

Still today politicians lie to us. They tell us what we want to hear. They say that Covid is over, because wouldn’t that be better? Except that wishing it were true doesn’t make it so. Deep within us, what we long for is for someone to say it like it is.

Dear preacher, we have had enough of false prophets. Please tell us the truth, whether that’s about church finances, the impending closure of buildings or living with the current restrictions due to Covid-19. Please don’t use cliches or say anything you don’t believe yourself. As you light the first candle on the Advent wreath, you might invite your congregation to place their trust in God who gives them hope and a future. Jeremiah was hated by everyone for the things he said, for the truth he told. His hope was real, honest, grounded and challenging. That’s how we know it to be true.

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Rev Dr Jean Kirkwood is a parish minister serving in the east of Scotland.

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